Opinionista Ismail Lagardien 11 December 2019

Between darkness and dawn, my story’s waiting to be born

It’s quite amusing when you hear people speak about their difficulties as writers or artists, when decades of vertically segmented privilege and family safety nets mean they can take risks or experiment. Some of us don’t have those privileges.

There is no electricity in my village. It is still light outside. Soon it will be dark, and I will light a few candles – the way I did when I was a little boy in Fietas. It’s the end of the second decade of the 21st century. It is a time marked by flashes of what we have come to understand as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It will come to naught without electricity. We need electricity to ignite this revolution.

As I sit down to write, now, it is the only story among the nattering classes. So, while nobody is paying attention to anything else – other than the fact that they have to live without electricity during load shedding episodes – is probably a good time to slip in the fact that I have started writing a book. Well, more correctly, if everything goes according to plan, I should start in earnest in January, on what has been the most elusive quest of my late adult life. Writing a book.

Confessional writing, and always finding reasons not to write

I am not the first, and will not be the last person who writes for a living, who will indulge in confessional writing about, well, not being able to write, and searching for some comfort in solitude (while writing). Be that as it may, I have always had an excuse, several, very valid excuses, actually, to not write a book. Why, you might ask, am I telling the world that I have started writing a book? Well, because I am scared. Because I am insecure. Because I don’t think I have the skills, or the insights, or the courage. Because if I put it out there – that I am writing a book – I may add pressure to actually do it.

But especially, because I have read so very many books, and really don’t think that I can produce anything that cuts as close to the crisis of being as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment; as beautiful and tragic as Irfan Orga’s Portrait of a Turkish Family; as moving and revolutionary as The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir – I read it in my late teens and it changed my life (in a traditional Muslim family) almost completely – or something as revelatory as The Family Idiot, only this time, in search of myself (and not Jean-Paul Sartre’s search for Gustave Flaubert), or, for that matter, a book like Nauseaarguably Sartre’s best work. As much as I would like to, I could never write a book as brutally honest (and written in good faith) as Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. It lies beyond the limits of my courage. When I reflect on these, and other books, I put down my pencil, turn up the gas and make a cup of tea: What more is there that can be written?

It’s not that I have not written before. I write for a living. But I felt some of the tensions when I wrote my doctoral dissertation – which was initially 120,000 words. I had to overcome, at first, the feeling that I did not belong. I was among a clearly privileged elite of mainly European students. And because of my own sense of displacement. I was raised, partially, in Eldorado Park and Kliptown, and I had spent the preceding decade traversing the world, in a manner of speaking, and was now “home” under grey gloomy British skies yet again. I had previously been to the London School of Economics twice, so I had a sense of the gloomy grey winters, and what passes for summer.

The challenges were intellectual. It was about insecurity. Displacement. It was during my doctoral research and coursework when I felt, also, that I was simply out of my depth. What could I possibly say, or write, that had not been said or written before? It helped that I had a scholarship (which is a story on its own…)

Notionally at “home,” today, and I have bills to pay. And that has been the best excuse for not taking time out to write a book over the past decade or more. There is no stream of income. There is no family, or trust fund, to fall back on, while I pretend to be a struggling writer or artist. It’s quite amusing when you hear people speak about their difficulties as writers or artists, when decades of vertically segmented privilege and family safety nets mean they can take risks or experiment. So, as I embark on this project, it’s just me, feelings of inadequacy, and hoping that I can make it through the next six to nine months. To mangle Jean-Paul Sartre on Gustave Flaubert: There is nothing, at this point in time, that I know of myself and that is sufficient to share with the world. But here I go, anyway.

It can be done, but I’m not sure I can

I have spoken to several local writers in recent months and years. The question I always start with is this: “How did you do this?” Concealed in that question is precisely the fear and trembling I raised in the above passages. I have felt encouraged, recently, by writers like Yusuf Daniels (Living Coloured) and Olivia Coetzee (Innie Shadows), people like me who don’t have the safety nets of family money or support, who sat down and produced successful texts, against all odds. I also looked deeper into all the reading I have done over the years to try and work out how the greatest writers did it; for, to be honest, not all the great writers and artists of the past came from wealthy families.

Before I carry on, I should say that I make no excuses for having immersed myself, for the better part of three decades, in French existentialism. And so, one of the writers I admire, Albert Camus, suffered from tuberculosis throughout his life, and lost his father during the First World War. He grew up in a dreary home in Algiers with a deaf and illiterate mother, and an illiterate and violent grandmother. His childhood was spent without electricity, no running water, no access to newspapers or a radio, no books and he knew very little about the world around him. One of the opening lines in one of his journals was: “A certain number of years lived without money are enough to create a whole sensibility”. I guess I know a bit about all of this. Except for the part of losing a father at the age of one.

Here I find myself, then, a writer and columnist, and an aspiring essayist, who always thought about writing a book, but never knowing what to write, never knowing why, and always having a reason not to write. What I have accepted, at this point, is that I write because I want to share ideas and experiences – perfect moments, if I may call it that. In this sense, writing is a type of freedom that explores the life-world and what lies beneath and beyond.

I only wish I could be sure that the bills would get paid every month. For that, I would have to churn out weekly columns and articles and do radio broadcasts to put food on the table. I should send this off to the editor before Stage 2 of tonight’s load shedding. After all, there really is only one story in the country, today. DM

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